Theresa May on Wednesday night narrowly saw off a vote of no confidence, but immediately faced a new confrontation with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as she tried to save her Brexit deal.
The prime minister was only able to survive the attempt by Mr Corbyn to force a general election by relying on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, whose 10 MPs prop up her minority government. They joined all Conservatives to reject the no-confidence motion 325 to 306.
Mrs May immediately sought to move on from the vote by inviting opposition leaders to join talks on how to break the Brexit deadlock that has gripped Westminster since the overwhelming rejection of her EU divorce agreement.
“I stand ready to work with any member of this house to deliver on Brexit, and ensure that this house retains the confidence of the British people,” she said in the Commons.
Mrs May said the talks could start immediately, but Mr Corbyn refused to hold “substantive” discussions unless the prime minister ruled out the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a negotiated deal with Brussels.
Mr Corbyn’s spokesman said Mrs May was attempting to “blackmail” opposition parties to accept a compromise plan against the threat of a chaotic exit on March 29.
Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP, said a second referendum and an extension of the Article 50 process had to be “on the table”.
Mrs May’s spokesman said the prime minister was adamant Britain would leave the EU on March 29, preferably with a deal.
Mrs May’s hopes of building a new cross-party approach on Brexit was left facing deadlock from the outset. She cannot renounce the possibility of a “no-deal” exit without invoking the ire of Tory Brexiters.
Despite Tuesday’s overwhelming defeat of the pact Mrs May had agreed after two years of talks, Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, signalled he had little leeway to change its parameters.
In his first remarks since the defeat, Mr Barnier urged UK MPs to determine quickly “very clearly” what they want in a new EU exit deal, but insisted Mrs May’s agreement remains the “best compromise” Brussels can offer.
I stand ready to work with any member of this House to deliver on Brexit, and ensure that this house retains the confidence of the British people
The prime minister will now focus her attention on senior backbench MPs from all parties, as she tries to fashion a new Brexit plan by next Monday, the Commons deadline for presenting a Plan B.
Earlier, some of Mrs May’s ministers openly defied her amid the Brexit impasse by refusing to rule out the UK having a permanent customs union with the EU, which would curb Britain’s ability to forge trade deals with countries outside the bloc.
Justice secretary David Gauke suggested the UK could remain in the EU customs union, saying: “I don’t think it makes sense at this point to be creating red lines in terms of our discussions.”
But Mrs May told MPs that to respect the 2016 Brexit referendum result, the UK must have “new opportunities to trade with the rest of the world”.
Ministers have also been split about whether to back an extension to the Article 50 divorce process under which Britain is supposed to leave the EU on March 29.
There was mounting evidence EU leaders would be open to a postponement. Peter Altmaier, an influential minister in the German government, said while it was up to Mrs May to decide whether to request an Article 50 extension, such a move would be given serious consideration.
“When parliament needs more time, then this is something that will have to be considered by the European Council, and personally I would see that as a reasonable request,” Mr Altmaier told the BBC.
An EU official said after the confidence that the bloc welcomed that there would be continuity. “The British PM does an admirable job. We have respect for her. Continuity is always welcome in these difficult times.”
During the pre-vote debate, Mr Corbyn told MPs that Mrs May had “lost control” and that the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act “was never intended to prop up a zombie government”. Mrs May countered that a general election was “simply not in the national interest”.
However, former Conservative leader William Hague told City of London figures that the Brexit crisis may lead to a snap general election. The former Tory party leader told Citigroup clients that “the media are underplaying the chances of a general election in the coming weeks”, according to one person briefed by the Tory grandee.
Additional reporting by Mehreen Khan in Brussels